• Email
  • Print

Comic, Sad and Indefinite

You might expect the presiding genius for a collection of essays about exceptional women to be someone like Joan of Arc, or Cleopatra, or Hillary Clinton. But for Rosemary Dinnage it’s Miss Havisham, that frightening cross between revengeful spinster, broken-hearted victim, and manipulative patroness, forever locked in time and waiting to be consumed by the fire of her own implacable resentment, half witch and half bag lady. Not an attractive or heroic presence to find shadowing Dinnage’s choice of “outsider women,” but a fitting ghost to haunt these somewhat melancholy proceedings. “If it’s about misery, send it to Dinnage,” she imagines her literary editors saying.

It is not public achievement or inspirational heroinism that mainly interest her. Educated in the late 1940s, a prolific, steadfast, and respected literary freelance writer for most of her life (much of it for The New York Review of Books), Dinnage deliberately sets herself outside the culture of women’s studies or literary feminism—or, for that matter, of academic trends or market fashions. Where high-achieving or heroic icons get into her book—Simone Weil, or Marie Stopes, or Olive Schreiner—they are treated with quizzical, critical realism. Dinnage divides her “outsider women” into Solitaries, Partners and Muses, Seers, Exotics, Reinventors, and the “Trapped.” But it’s the solitaries who set the tone. The title quote is taken from one of Alice James’s more eerily Jamesian moments of inner desolation, writing of “the ‘Alone, Alone!’ that echoed through the house, rustled down the stairs, whispered from the walls, and confronted me, like a material presence.”

In spite of Alice James (whom Dinnage typically refuses to sanctify, finding this “gallant and intelligent” woman also “spiteful, bitter, and very easily dislikable”), this is a very English book. Its main characters—Gwen John, Barbara Pym, Ottoline Morrell, Dora Russell, Annie Besant, Angela Brazil, Enid Blyton, Marie Stopes, Rebecca West, Margaret Oliphant, Clementine Churchill (what is she doing here?)—seem to be chosen as much for their Britishness as their aloneness. Her groups of outsiders—a witches’ enclave of the Azande on the Hornsey Rise, the English Collective of Prostitutes—are mainly London-based. Where she does pick foreigners—Simone Weil, Mrs. Verdi, Janacek’s Kamila Stosslova, Mme. Blavatsky—she treats them with an English commonsensical resistance to prima-donnaish excesses.

The virtues of Rosemary Dinnage’s approach—humaneness, humor, pity, stoicism—come with a liking for patchwork, a tolerance for mild eccentricity, a respect for privacy and stiff upper lips, and an affectionate interest in “ordinary living” and human confusion. “Comic and sad and indefinite” sums up Barbara Pym, she thinks, “as it does all our lives.”

Perhaps it is a handicap, in writing about the relationship between men and women, to be conclusive. To be aghast and muddled and fascinated is at least a good start.

This Anglo-Saxon preference for muddle and inconclusiveness leads her to dislike fanatics, absolutism, theorists, gurus, and fantasists. She likes people who “cope,” describing this, indeed, as a “peculiarly English” virtue, with a revealing, rather old-fashioned footnote: “There is a much-loved piece of English vernacular: ‘Well, if you didn’t laugh you’d cry, wouldn’t you?’ It is only, I think, heard from women.” She can be severe, but she won’t apportion blame or withhold interest, even from the most patently harmful bigots and extremists. “All shall have medals.”

Dinnage quotes Katherine Mansfield glimpsing Augustus John at the theater and describing, with her usual uncanny brilliance, the “inner landscape” she sees in his face:

I seemed to see his mind, his haggard mind, like a strange forbidding country, full of lean sharp peaks and pools lit with a gloomy glow, and trees bent with the wind and vagrant muffled creatures tramping their vagrant way. Everything exhausted and finished….

It’s an example of how good Dinnage is at always finding the most telling quotation, and of how her interest is above all in these inner landscapes.

In the mini-biographies these essays produce from their reading of letters, journals, novels, autobiographies, and Lives, there are plenty of eventful and peculiar stories. So we see Simone Weil working on a French farm in her twenties, fanatically committed to putting her political beliefs (in the need to improve conditions for working people and to foster comradeship through labor) into practice, but chronically at odds with those very practicalities. When the farmer and his wife offered her their fine cream cheese,

she pushed it away, saying the little Indochinese were hungry.” Also, Mlle. Weil never changed her clothes, could not milk a cow, and deeply embarrassed the farmer’s family by asking them to… “sum up their desires.”

We see Karen Blixen, alias Isak Dinesen, going out onto her African estate to look for a sign to tell her why everything (loss of “lover, husband, home, income, and health”) had gone so terribly wrong, and getting for her “sign” a white cock biting out the tongue of a chameleon that had run into its path: “Great powers had laughed to me…they had said… among the cocks and Chameleons, Ha ha!” At the other end of the spectrum of “outsiders,” we have Winston Churchill’s widow, Clementine Churchill, in her old age, quietly and scandalously ordering the destruc-tion of the darkly realistic, looming portrait which Graham Sutherland had painted of her husband and which Churchill had refused to have hung in public. Dinnage hazards a guess that after years of “nursing the old tyrant,” “perhaps she needed…to have one great, tremendous battering and slashing.”

For all her fascination with such curious events, it is the “inner landscape” that most allures her. Many of her subjects, like the women in Gwen John’s paintings, “look obliquely away from the spectator”; many of them have buried parts of themselves or are trying to make up for early deprivations: these are the “blank spaces that, rarely, open up and show themselves” underneath the decisions and actions which fill most biographies. Dinnage wants to get at those blank spaces or catch those oblique glances, and she is strongly suggesting that the stories of women’s lives offer more possibilities of doing this, though she doesn’t go as far as, say, a feminist critic such as Carolyn Heilbrun, who suggested that women’s lives require particular kinds of narratives. Dinnage doesn’t theorize her position; she prefers empathy to intervention (analyzing the flavor of Barbara Pym’s novels, for instance, would be like putting “big hands in a doll’s house”). But over and over again she looks for the “deep inner confusions and despairs” under the “shell of tough intellect” (as with Olive Schreiner), the lonely fantasy of death as welcome deliverance that is mixed up with Stevie Smith’s comical shrug (“Heigh-ho for wry amusement, for stoical sorrow”), or the putting-on of a front with which to meet society, spectacularly so in the case of Ottoline Morrell: “Clearly she was a shy woman who constructed an elaborately decorative façade to hide behind.”

It would be unfair to suggest that she collapses all her exceptional women back into sensitive plants, in hiding from the world. There are plenty of exhibitionists in here (she is good on those tirelessly self-promoting Theosophists, Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant) and she likes hard workers—with a particularly soft spot for the vigorous and resilient Margaret Oliphant, who labored valiantly at novel-writing to support a catastrophically needy family, had her work slighted by Henry James as “a quivering mass of faintness and fatuity” (“Hateful Henry!” bursts out Dinnage protectively), and could have been, she thinks, in other circumstances, a major novelist.

All the same, a large number of these “outsider women” are poised on the edge of serious depression, illness, and breakdown. There are some painful stories here, of Gwen John retreating into reclusive poverty, painting less and less, and dying in a hospice in Dieppe, an unknown derelict; Simone Weil, starving herself to death, forever raging against herself in a passion of self-contempt; Alice James urging on her own death with “grim, jocose tenacity”; and a number of case studies of the difficult, “knife-edge” relationship between patients with manic depression and the mental health professionals. She doesn’t attribute blame. Rodin is not demonized for abandoning Gwen John; Dora Russell is shown to have vigorously bounced back from Bertrand Russell’s despicable treatment of her. The “outsider women” are as likely to be bossy as bossed. Here she is, at her best, robustly satirizing one of the most impossible of her subjects, Marie Stopes:

Lacking all the virtues we currently admire—honesty, imagination, generosity, and even common sense—in her private life Marie Stopes hardly brought sunshine to those associated with her. She very deliberately detached engaged men from their fiancées because it suited her, and despised and discarded two rather pathetic husbands; having brought her son up in skirts (trousers might injure the growing genitals) she quarreled irrevocably with him when he married a shortsighted girl (“the awful curse will carry on…”); she brought in a series of adopted “brothers” for him and discarded them when they did not come up to specification. One failed to get his alphabet right, two did not “bloom so as to be a credit to us,” one wet his knickers. All were sent back.

She was anti-Semitic, right wing, and more concerned in her campaigning to breed the “C3” strain—the underclass—out of the population than to ameliorate its lot. And Stopes not only offended against political correctness, she offended grossly against literature, by writing, and sometimes publishing, many dreadful novels and poems…. Altogether a ridiculous and really rather dreadful woman—who in her public work did much good, although she was not quite the lone pioneer she claimed to be.

Clearly Dinnage is not concerned with presenting victims. However, her own lifelong interest in and experience of psychoanalysis often leads her back into childhood sources of adult behavior. She has a rather too lenient affection for the “sheer and lovely ridiculousness” of English girls’ boarding-school stories, and a fascination with regression. Trying to understand groups who take up magic and witchcraft, she supposes that they enjoy magic “as a return to childhood.” Thinking about the remarkable drawings made by an autistic child of six, she embraces a definition of autism not as backwardness but as “potentially normal intelligence that has gone into retreat for some reason”: so the autistic child begins to sound a little like some of her more self-protective, withdrawn heroines.

To think of adults as children is usually to forgive them or to feel pity for their vulnerability; Dinnage always writes about her subjects as though they are younger than she is; she calls Katherine Mansfield, for instance, “this wretchedly unlucky girl.” Her protectiveness goes with a broad, liberal tolerance. She takes a deep breath (“this is going to be nasty,” she warns at the start of her essay on prostitutes) and plunges into lives that are quite alien to her. She is willing to go as far as she can along the most peculiar “byways of the imagination”—belief in “realistic hallucinations,” or fertility spells—in the interests of understanding multiple beliefs and half-beliefs and the curious survivals of the need for religion and magic: “We are deprived of ritual, though it springs up in primitive forms like the structure of office coffee breaks.” She even treats with respect Enid Blyton’s claim that she was a kind of medium for Noddy and all the Toytown characters who came along and gave her their stories, which she received with her eyes closed.

Dinnage is not polemical, but she has a moral feeling for the benefits of peculiarity or aloneness: “So many of these women learned from isolation.” And she is careful not to patronize or dehistoricize her subjects. Writing about the hopeless longing for their impossible love-objects felt by Janacek and Pirandello, she takes pains to think herself back into a time when feeding off “the image of someone absent” for years and years was a real possibility, in contrast with “present-day assumptions about the speed of consummations and changes.” (The same point is made more eloquently in Julian Barnes’s tender and melancholy story of Turgenev’s love for his Verochka, in “The Revival,” one of the stories in his new book, The Lemon Table: “Here is the argument for the world of renunciation. If we know more about consummation, they knew more about desire….”)*

There are one or two missed opportunities. She rather demurely side-steps any discussion of Alice James’s relationship with her friend Katharine Loring. And she doesn’t bring her portraits of Gwen John or Isak Dinesen up to date by referring to the biographies by Frances Spalding or Judith Thurman. She manages to talk at length about Rebecca West with-out ever mentioning her best novel, The Fountain Overflows. I would have liked to read her on some other “outsider women” who don’t get in here: Charlotte Mew, or Ivy Compton-Burnett, or Emily Dickinson.

But the person I missed most was Virginia Woolf. Dinnage quotes her several times—her fine, grieving description of the very ill Katherine Mansfield, her recommendations to herself for cures for self-absorption (“one should read; see outsiders; think more; write more logically; above all be full of work; & practise anonymity”). And she allows her some very beautiful concluding words—her description of how the landscape comes back to life after an eclipse, which Dinnage compares to a “recovery from isolation.” But she has no single chapter, no room of her own, in this book. Perhaps Dinnage felt that Woolf was too much of an insider, culturally and socially, to be a main subject here. But it was Woolf who wanted (in Three Guineas) to found a Society of Outsiders for women who don’t want to join a club or pay a subscription, who choose to stay on the edge of, rather than infiltrating, the (male-dominated) procession or professions, and who seek to preserve their objectivity and independence through refusals, questionings, satire, and laughter.

  1. *

    The Lemon Table (Knopf, July 2004).

  • Email
  • Print